Warm Brew might not be your typical set of friends or rap group these days, but they are Red Bull Records’ first hip-hop artist, and they’re definitely the hometown favorites. At a time where everyone seems to be missing that G-Funk sound of the West Coast, here are three middle school friends bringing it straight to your doorstep. Their last jobs include slangin’ tamales and catering for Casablanca, but now their mission is proving to Red Bull Records and Dom Kennedy’s OPM label that the chance they took with Warm Brew was their best decision yet. And with the release of their latest EP Diagnosis, you could say Warm Brew has done just that.
I met Ray and Serk one summer playing basketball at our friend Devin Antin’s house. Each of us grew up in West L.A. and we’ve had mutual friends since middle school but we never really met each other. I knew the name Warm Brew but it wasn’t until that day, on the way to play basketball, that I actually heard their music. Sam Brody, another friend of ours, picked me up and said “the homies from Warm Brew” were already playing at Devin’s. We listened to about 3 of their songs on the way there and all I can remember is that their personalities translated from the stereo to the court. I could relate with them on and off the court, and I could only imagine the ambition they had for their music.
Since initially meeting we’ve become great friends, collaborated on multiple projects, and hang out pretty often. I knew getting Ray, Serk, and Manu Li over to the house for this interview wouldn’t be hard. If there’s football on and weed to go around, we’ll all come around.
R to L: Serf Spliff, Ray Wright, Manu Li, Richard Massie
Richard Massie: Can you tell us your story? Your guys’ background, how you met each other, and where you first started writing and recording music together.
Ray Wright: I met Manu Li in middle school, we both went to Lincoln Middle School. First we weren’t like really good friends or anything like that. But as we got older.
Richard Massie: What do you mean? You guys didn’t like each other?
Ray Wright: No, this nigga didn’t like me because I think he said I thought like I was too cool or something. I don’t know, it was weird. It was like some sixth grade shit. I think maybe I didn’t say what’s up to him one time or some shit. He was just like fuck that nigga then. [Laughs] some 12-year old shit. But I was friends with his brother.
Then I met Serk at SaMo [Santa Monica High School]. We were all just friends that really liked music and shit. Even when Manu left.
Richard Massie: I’m saying because if [Serk] went to SaMo High and [Manu] went to Malibu, how did you guys keep in contact?
Ray Wright: Yeah. Pretty much like—
Manu Li: AIM and shit.
Ray Wright: Shit like that.
Serk Spliff: AIM was the shit.
Ray Wright: So yeah, we kept in contact and shit. I ended up getting a computer in like 11th grade or some shit. Me and Manu just started recording. That time I was like staying with Serk’s grandparents I think.
Richard Massie: This was before Serk started making music?
Ray Wright: Yeah, before he started. And I was just always over there at his grandparents’ house. I wasn’t living there at the time, I would just be over there all the time, but then I ended up like having to live there to go to school. But yeah, I would just make music on the homie’s floor, you know what I mean? It was really like, his brother had an empty room so I would go in the empty room and just be in the empty room. Me and this fool [Manu Li] would be in there just rapping and shit.
Richard Massie: Were you writing music at all Serk?
Serk Spliff: I mean, when I was younger I always wrote a lot. Not music but I just liked writing. And then the music part came later, once they started doing it. It’s just tight seeing your homies do something, you know what I mean? It’s like man, they’re having fun and they’re really into it. And then you get drawn into it... I supported the whole thing. Like when they really came out and they’re like, “I’m going to make music,” this fool Ray dropped out of school for it. And me and Manu Li were kicking it all the time because we didn’t go to college. I was fresh out of high school, so that’s when we really bonded because we just had nothing to do other than kick it and wait for this nigga Ray to come home so we could just make some music. The first few years I was pretty much like the hype man just having a good fuckin’ time. Then I grew into it. You just fall in love with it.
Richard Massie: So Serk’s grandpa’s house was the first place you guys recorded at together?
Ray Wright: Yeah, on Hill Street. We had a couple other situations where like we would go to someone’s backhouse and they had some type of setup. Make a track with somebody, you know what I mean.
Richard Massie: Did you guys just rap into the microphone on the laptop before?
Manu Li: All the time.
Ray Wright: At Nico’s house that’s how we would do it. When I came back from school we would record. We dropped some shit and then I don’t know, people started hearing it and started fuckin’ with it. You know what I mean, it was just a real young stage... We grew up together. Like at some point, you know, we all grew up in bad situations. Single mother or what have you. We’ve all seen the gutters. We know what it’s like.
Richard Massie: How would you describe each other’s role in the group? Musically, when you guys record, who brings what to the table?
Richard Massie: For the record, we just started laughing because Ray just opened a two-pack Starburst and got red and pink and we were just talking about how rare that is.
Ray Wright: You gotta be a special kinda nigga for that.
Richard Massie: But I, Richard, was the first one today to open the red and pink.
Richard Massie: So welcome to the winner’s circle, Ray. Okay, so in each other’s words, we’ll start with you, Serk. What would you say Manu Li brings to the group? What role does he play?
Serk Spliff: Manu Li, he just has a knowledge of music that is deep. He knows and listens to a lot of different kinds of music and he just hears shit differently. That’s something I like and appreciate a lot.
“We grew up together… We’ve all seen the gutters. We know what it’s like.” -Ray Wright
Richard Massie: So his taste in music influences the process?
Serk Spliff: Well, because he listens to so many different types of music. He doesn’t really listen to hip-hop all the damn time. The music he’s listening to always ranges. He just brings that different aspect, you know what I mean. He’s the wild card. He can be the most hip-hop nigga you know, but he’s also like the most far out. This nigga be on Radiohead like a motherfucker. I be hearing this nigga at night just singing this shit while he’s going to sleep.
Richard Massie: So in the studio he’ll bring that influence?
Serk Spliff: Yeah, and just his wittiness. He says some clever ass shit that people never even think of. And then Ray, he writes the hooks. He comes up with a lot of the concepts, a lot of the hooks, most of them. And that’s what makes the song ride out. People listen to verses but the hook is the part most people remember.
Richard Massie: So let’s talk about the Red Bull deal. How did that come about?
Ray Wright: We just started getting cool with Dom [Kennedy and OPM] and he knew our manager from like high school and shit. He heard a song we did and heard Ryan was managing us and kind of just put the two together. So he got in contact then was like, “Yo, I want to come check them out.” We were in like a studio in Westchester and [Dom] came over there and smoked with us and shit. And then he invited us to a show the next month. They started just bringing us around all his people and shit and then really I don’t know. We just kind of started vibing and went to the studio one day and made a track. He heard us spit and was like, “Yeah, I really gotta fuck with these guys.”
Richard Massie: So after OPM, the Red Bull thing happened?
Ray Wright: Yeah, through Ryan. We like linked up with this dude Tick who he had been back and forth with.
Richard Massie: Tick like the bug?
Manu Li & Ray: Tick like the dragon! [Tick Dragon]
Ray Wright: That’s what they call him. The Beastie Boys gave him the nickname back in the day.
He took us to this restaurant that was real vegan and shit, swore it was the best shit ever. I guess it’s YG’s favorite new spot, Gracias Madre. That shit is terrible… But yeah so anyways, we went to the restaurant with Tick and just started kicking it with him a little more. And he got us our first placement a little bit before that, like on a TV show and shit. He got us paid, which was tight. We kind of finally felt like, ah man, like—
Richard Massie: Like it’s starting to work.
Ray Wright: Yeah, like it actually does go down, you know what I mean. But it does just take a while. So we just kept doing shows and shit, then Red Bull flew out to SXSW to see us. And they just wanted to take a chance on some shit that never been done before, at least with their—
Richard Massie: I think they’re underrated though, they have some dope artists.
Ray Wright: Yeah, they have AWOLNATION, which is a dope group. They got a couple other bands like Beartooth, they’re more rocker stuff but it’s tight. And it’s tight because we were the first on Red Bull as hip-hop artists, but we’re not the last. It’ll be dope when the day comes that they do decide for something else to go down. Hopefully they’ll respect us enough to have input on who that is. We feel like they will.
Richard Massie: Who came up with the name Warm Brew? I really don’t think I’ve heard this story before. How did that name come about?
Manu Li: So I was talking with Spence, well first of all, Alex Spence was part of the group. For maybe a week or two. [Laughs] It was us two and Alex Spence.
Ray Wright: The original group. He had the computer. So we was like, fuck it, let’s just go to this nigga’s house and record on his computer.
Manu Li: So I’m just talking to him and I’m like damn we need a name. And he’s like, “I need a name.” He needed a name for himself. I forget all the names that he offered to us. But the one he chose for himself was Wild Oak. And you know Wild Oak used to be, it was Whole Foods before it was Whole Foods.
Ray Wright: Wild Oats.
Ray Wright: That’s the whitest fuckin’ rapper name.
Richard Massie: He could’ve been the greatest white rapper ever with that name.
Manu Li: And then there was like a list of names for the group and he just did them. And I remember telling Tay, “What do you think about Warm Brew?” He was like, “Shit’s straight.” I remember it being really short.
Richard Massie: Was it just at this point—
Manu Li: I mean, it just wasn’t wack.
Ray Wright: It was just a name.
Manu Li: Yeah, like the name can change later.
Ray Wright: Like, look we need to start rapping, nigga. We can’t continue to not rap because we ain’t got no motherfuckin name. Let’s get this name shit out the way.
Richard Massie: It’s like creating a character in like NBA2K. You don’t ever get to play because it takes too long, you’re just trying to figure out a name and shit.
Manu Li: I remember being like, man, that’s a dope name... Warm Brew. A lot of shit could come of this. Like instantly I realized.
“This nigga be on Radiohead like a motherfucker. I be hearing this nigga at night just singing this shit while he’s going to sleep.” -Serk Spliff on Manu Li’s role in Warm Brew
Richard Massie: I have another question. Do any of you guys have a favorite song that you guys have done?
Serk Spliff: Man, it changes, you know what I mean. That’s what’s dope though because we make songs for so many different moods. We got some turnt up songs, songs you can just think to, songs that make you feel good. But like right now my favorite is probably some of the newer shit we made. “The Mission” is still one of my favorites.
Manu Li: Man. It’s a tie but I really like “The Mission” and I like “A1Day1.” But I also like “Word.” Well I like the shit I said on “Word.” [Laughs] I just think I said some really clever stuff on that track. But that’s just because of the shit I said. It’s a super hip-hop track. Like I got—
Ray Wright: [imitating Manu Li] It’s just a real egotistical type thing, you know what I mean?
Manu Li: [Laughs] The favorite verse I ever spit.
Ray Wright: I don’t even know these niggas’ verses.
Manu Li: I just fast forward to my shit! Nah, but seriously I’d say definitely “The Mission,” “A1Day1” are my favorites.
Richard Massie: If you guys weren’t limited by a budget what would you guys do next? Like how would you guys want to put yourself out? Performance-wise, musically, videos, etc.
Manu Li: Huge stadium status shows.
Serk Spliff: A movie shot by Will Azcona [the photographer who shot this article].
Ray Wright: More like short films and just the best picture quality for our videos. Better camera equipment and more camera people.
Serk Spliff: Ride on giraffes in video.
Manu Li: I would hire people who were broke, who didn’t have jobs. Give them something to do. Shit like that.
Ray Wright: Put the homies on.
Manu Li: All around the world. If it’s going to be about the music, give back in that way. If I had that budget, I think people would actually know about us. Everywhere.
Ray Wright: Having different types of schools that are more for this age and era in music, not so classical.
Richard Massie: Serk, if you could pick one person to work with Warm Brew, who would it be?
Serk Spliff: Alive?
Richard Massie: Alive.
Ray Wright: I already know. John Legend. Where you at, dawg?
Richard Massie: Damn, that would be hard. Manu Li who would you pick?
Manu Li: Man, that’s hard. It’s either between TIP or Cudi. But honestly I would regret the fact that I never worked with Cudi so I choose Kid Cudi.
Richard Massie: What about you Serk? Selena?
Serk Spliff: Aw man if she was alive, 100%… Oh man that would be popping. I would say Celia Cruz just for the fuck of it. [Laughs] Really though I’d have to say DJ Quik. I’ve been listening to his shit a lot lately.
Richard Massie: I could definitely see that.
Ray Wright: We have a couple of tracks low key in the cut on some Quik shit. We got one with Polyester [the Saint] and he already worked with Quik so that nigga might have to hear that.
“Like, it’s safe to say I wouldn’t be the nigga I am today without these two. When you spend pretty much every fucking day with somebody that’s what happens.” -Serk Spliff
Richard Massie: I’ma go around just real quick. Serk, what’s your favorite beer?
Serk Spliff: My favorite beer? Toña... it’s from Nicaragua. That’s my favorite. Got to hold it down for my Nicas.
Richard Massie: Ray, what about you?
Ray Wright: My favorite beer? Damn. It probably would have to be Delirium. That shit gets you tossed up! And it tastes fire. You’re just like, nigga what the fuck? off this one goblet of beer I’m fuckin’ feeling like a god.
Manu Li: Damn, I’m going to regret that we didn’t hit up that Delirium bar. But umm.. that’s a good question. Fuck it, I’m going to say Budweiser, wink wink. Get them on the phone.
Richard Massie: What’s your guys’ favorite album of all time? Say if you were on an island you could only listen to one album what would it be?
Manu Li: I guess Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest.
Ray Wright: It’s a fucked up question. You’re really an asshole for asking it. But here we go. I’d have to go with Bob Marley, I think. The Legend album, deluxe edition, you feel me? It’s double-sided so I got like 20 tracks on a motherfucking island. nigga.
Manu Li: Right. I should pick an album with more songs on it. I’m like damn, that nigga had a double disc. [Laughs]
Ray Wright: I would just be hoping for a bitch. Like goddamn, I hope a bitch pops out this coconut tree nigga.
Richard Massie: Well, I didn’t say there was no girls on the island. I just said one album.
Ray Wright: Alright, well damn yeah, Bob Marley. Everything’s happy nigga.
Manu Li: Some niggas would be like YG – My Krazy Life. [Laughs] Like really? All day?
Serk Spliff: I’d fuck with Young Black Brother by Mac Dre.
Richard Massie: I got another fucked up question. If you could bring one rapper back from the dead, just one, who would it be?
Ray Wright: Gotta be Mac Dre.
Richard Massie: That’s a good answer.
Ray Wright: It is a good answer but Tupac is my favorite all time so I feel bad not saying that. But I don’t know, man. I don’t know. I got to say Pac actually, no question.
Richard Massie: I feel like everyone would say that, so that’s why I was kind of hyped on the Mac Dre answer.
Serk Spliff: I’m taking Mac Dre. I know he was just saying that, but that’s why I would’ve said Tupac because I know he feels the same way. It’s one of those two for me.
Manu Li: Well besides Tupac, I’ll say something else for the interview’s sake. This is a really tough question. Who else is not here anymore—
Ray Wright: Big L would be crazy.
Serk Spliff: Yeah, Big L would be crazy.
Manu Li: A lot of my favorite rappers are still alive. They didn’t have that type of drama. But fuck it, I’ll say Dolla.
Richard Massie: I like that answer.
Manu Li: Wait. Did I just say that?
Serk Spliff: Yeah, I think you did.
Richard Massie: I think you said Chingy.
Manu Li: No. If you could resurrect one career whose would it be.
Serk Spliff: Chingy.
Manu Li: J-kwon.
Ray Wright: Ginuwine.
Manu Li: Yeah Ginuwine was in bad shape.
Richard Massie: Okay, what would you guys say is the worst trend in rap music today?
Ray Wright: Fuck, I’d say the whole like “everybody is a trapper” thing.
Serk Spliff: It should be done.
Ray Wright: Yeah, it should just be done. That should’ve passed. It should be like, yo, let’s go back to how shit was. You’re from where you’re from and that’s the type of music you made. Let’s start from the beginning. Let’s make dope raps. I’m not sitting here saying I don’t like trap music, but it’s like there are certain people who, you know what I mean, like Gucci Mane who will forever make trap music. That’s who he is. But like some other people are just doing just to do it.
Richard Massie: I feel what you’re saying. It’s like people want to hear that sound of where they’re from.
Ray Wright: I want to hear that from Atlanta.
Richard Massie: Like a country rapper rapping about where they live and where they’re from. It’s not like they’re gonna rap like a West Coast artist and talk about palm trees and a Impala or some shit.
Ray Wright: Yeah. And it’s not to say like a Southern rapper can’t rap on a East Coast beat or a West Coast beat. It’s like, throw that mix in there and do that shit. I’m just saying like, don’t make every track like it has to be about trap. That shit is, like, you know what I mean. We need more substance.
Serk Spliff: Yeah, that mumble rap shit is annoying too. I can’t stand that shit.
Richard Massie: I want to talk more as a group, is it difficult to operate as a unit with each of you, like because of the age that you guys are at, each of you are growing individually and everyone has like their own personal goals and what not. Does that ever get in the way?
Serk Spliff: I mean, everybody gets into spats. It’s on some brother shit. You’re going to get into it with your brothers. That’s what happens, that’s how it’s supposed to be. We’re just good homies, man. So we know how to work with each other and we been growing with each other for years now. Like, it’s safe to say I wouldn’t be the nigga I am today without these two. When you spend pretty much every fucking day with somebody that’s what happens.
Manu Li: And like, I’m a fan of Warm Brew. I want to see more with Warm Brew. I want to just see where this shit goes.
Richard Massie: Just naturally it’s number one priority huh?
Manu Li: You know everyone in the world needs to grow at their own pace and whatever and be original in themselves and bring something to the group so that we’re not stagnant. So I think it’s important that we grow as people to bring it to this group.
Richard Massie: We said earlier that you guys record all the time but you only put out what you guys really like, so it’s quality versus quantity. With that being said, do you think that like the way content is consumed so quickly these days, do you find it hard to put out music knowing that your fans can love you one day and be over you the next day? Do you think about that at all?
Manu Li: It’s been thought about but I don’t think we’re in that category because we actually do put out quality music. I don’t think that’s the case with us. And I think we have loyal fans because how real our music is. So I think that us thinking that way. Like, we’re going to put something out and this is going to last and we’re going to do these shows and make people remember them.
“It’s just about that natural progression while still being yourself. That’s like the hardest thing to do.” -Manu Li
Richard Massie: I think you guys have that music that stays around for awhile. Some music it just gets absorbed so fast especially with all the shit that sounds the same. And like you said, the loyalty in the fans. You guys really have like a full on community. It’s not just the three of you guys. You guys really have a whole city riding with you, but growing with you and they’ve been there since day one.
Ray Wright: If you riding with us, you riding with the whole team.
Manu Li: It definitely gives us patience. And I think it has a lot to do if you don’t sound like everybody else then you’re not going to get drowned out because they got to listen to you to find that mix instead. You got to have that part in their playlist.
Richard Massie: Okay, so this is kind of going back to the whole trap thing. We’re all kind of agreeing that people want to hear the music of where you’re from. I think everyone will agree that Warm Brew’s music has that unique West Coast feel that a lot of us are familiar with. Is that like the particular sound you guys want to stick to?
Ray Wright: It’s inevitable, dawg. It’s just the way it’s going to sound, you know what I mean. I don’t know about these guys, they might not be the biggest fan, and I’m not a huge fan of it, but that’s the sound and I understand… When you grow up with that shit and that certain type of rhythm and those certain type of chords and listen to that type of shit, it’s like an acquired taste. You’re like, damn I like this because it’s just been, almost like forced upon you. But it’s cool.
Manu Li: Yeah, like we always want to maintain this piece of ourselves because I think that’s the shit that I want to hear but at the same time I also listen to other shit, so it’s like how can we put it all together? And then you have a catalogue of all types of shit but it’s still Warm Brew, you know what I mean. It’s just about that natural progression while still being yourself. That’s like the hardest thing to do.
Richard Massie: I’m going to go another favorite question. What is your favorite rap group other than Warm Brew?
Manu Li: Well, can I have a slash? Just one slash. A Tribe Called Quest/Slum Village. Oh and Little Brother. And 213. That’s it, that’s it!
Ray Wright: Honestly the most influential group when I was a kid—I mean I’m not going to say NWA because it was a little bit before me and I couldn’t appreciate it as much—but when the Hot Boys fuckin’ dropped! You know what I’m saying?!
Manu Li: Yeah everyone wanted to be a Hot Boy.
Ray Wright: When Juvenile dropped “400 Degrees” but it was like the Hot Boys was with him. That whole Hot Boys shit was just ridiculous. That shit started a new chapter.
Richard Massie: They had it on lock.
Manu Li: They straight took over from No Limit. Like it went straight from No Limit to like Cash Money. They had the talent, they had the youth. They just took that shit straight up.
Serk Spliff: I fuck with the Clipse. I got to get that in there.
Richard Massie: What was the last job that you guys had? Serk?
Serk Spliff: Tamara’s Tamales.
Ray Wright: I did like some delivery shit, this nigga Johnny Reyes hooked me up. He was like, “Yo fool, you got a car, you want to make some money delivering food and shit?” I was like fuck it. And then he just like hooked it up.
Manu Li: Catering for Casablanca.
Richard Massie: Okay, so what’s next for Warm Brew? What are you guys working on now? Another album?
Ray Wright: We’re about to go on tour soon. And yeah, another album and just keep recording really, and just meet people that want to fuck with the music and that want to be a part of this. We wanna go worldwide with this shit. Our best music is yet to be made and we have a lot of music we’re sitting on right now that is going to blow people’s minds. That’s how we feel and that’s how our camp feels. So what I say is next is figuring out who and what are the final pieces because we’re about to blast off.
Photos by Will Azcona.